Hanging Tough

UPDATED 05/15/1995 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 05/15/1995 at 01:00 AM EDT

BORN OUT OF WEDLOCK TO A TROUBLED young mother, the new Miss USA, Chelsi Smith, has overcome long odds in her 21 years. But some things you just can't help. At a celebrity Wheel of Fortune taping in March, the 5'8", 120-lb. beauty landed on Bankrupt three times in a row and finished a distant second to actor Jeffrey Tambor. "My luck just wasn't working for me today," she sighed.

Maybe it needed a breather. Newly engaged to her boyfriend of two years, Kelly Blair, 25, a weight-lifting coach at the University of Houston, Smith is still adjusting to her elevation last February from Miss Texas to Miss USA. And come May 12, she'll vie with some 80 others for the Miss Universe crown in Namibia. Says Dr. Joyce Brothers, one of the Miss USA judges: "Chelsi has the whole package: sparkle, poise and confidence."

And resilience. She was born in Red-wood City, Calif., to Denise Trimble, then a struggling, 19-year-old white secretary, and Craig Smith, a 19-year-old black maintenance man. They married and separated before Chelsi was 2. Financially strapped then and alcoholic, Denise (who has been sober for the last five years) moved to Wilmington, Del., where she signed over custody of Chelsi to her parents: Jeanette, 62, a former receptionist, and Barnie, 66, a retired supervisor for DuPont. "My parents were the Rock of Gibraltar for both of us," says Denise, now a saleswoman at JCPenney in Wilmington. "I knew it was best for Chelsi."

At 7, Smith was uprooted again when Barnie was transferred to Kingwood, a Houston suburb. Soon after, he and Jeanette divorced, and Smith was shuttled between them. Denise visited once a year. "She came as much as she could," says Smith, "but not as much as I wanted." As for her father, Smith has seen him only twice, the last time when she was 12. "I'm not resentful," she says matter-of-factly. "There wasn't room in my life for someone who wasn't going to care."

At predominantly white Deer Park High School near Houston, Smith was voted one of the most beautiful girls in the class of 1992 but found herself dateless. "Guys wouldn't ask her out because she was black," says Blair, who was three years ahead of her at the school and admits to feeling that way at first too. "We lived in a major redneck town." At the suggestion of friends, Smith launched a pageant career by entering the Miss Houston competition after graduation and finishing as first runner-up. Last year, while studying elementary education at Houston's San Jacinto College, she won the Miss Texas title on her second try. The Miss USA contest followed, bringing $207,000 in cash and prizes.

Now living in the high-rise apartment in L.A. provided by the Miss USA pageant for the duration of her reign, Smith is following a strict diet in preparation for the Miss Universe contest. And she's hoping to launch a music career. Though she has sung pop, inspirational music seems the logical choice. "I haven't had any bad days," she says. "Just a lot of character-building ones."

JANICE MIN
TOM CUNNEFF in Los Angeles

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